The residents of the small dark room had encountered a serious problem. Here at the outpost they were only given a single meal, and that meal consisted of foul roots and squirming insects. In lieu of water they were given cups of blood.
Refuse to eat? Then you starved. One might be able to hold out for a day but they were only human. How long could they go without food?
Claudia and the other two from Skycloud watched Cloudhawk scarf the food down with relish, like it was some rare delicacy. It made them doubt their assumption that the fare was as disgusting as it appeared.
It was precisely as disgusting as it looked, but under circumstances like these they had to fool themselves into thinking otherwise. Claudia danced around the prospect for half an hour, though she knew time was limited. In another thirty minutes a soldier was going to come and take their food away.
Gritting her teeth, Claudia picked out a root that didn’t look too awful from the mess in her bowl. They were all awful of course, but this was at least looked relatively edible – even if it did remind her of petrified feces. If it were the consistent shape would speak to the owner’s good digestive health.
Alright, enough. It’s only psychological, don’t mind how it looks.
Claudia rolled it between her fingers and felt the gritty soil stuck to it. It must have been recently dug out of the ground. But it didn’t matter – harden up and deal with it!
But then she had second thoughts. She didn’t know where this had come from.
She pulled a knife from her rucksack and shaved off the root bark.  It helped dispel the illusion that it looked like shit, but the more she peeled the more it started to smell like it. Still she held back her disgust and took a bite. Right away her face twisted into a pained expression.
The other two couldn’t take it and followed her lead.
Could people actually eat this stuff?! It was like death to their taste buds, every sniff was lethal! It didn’t matter how strong your will was, this stuff was stronger. It was absurd – ridiculous! How was that uncouth swine able to eat it like a delicacy? Impossible!
Cloudhawk had finished his portion long ago. He was seated quietly with his eyes closed.
He didn’t care what the others thought. Years in the wastelands had taught him that the more scarce food became the more you had to conserve energy. Dispel the idea of any unnecessary movement. Try to make your body’s systems go dormant to spend less precious strength.
The proof was how he reacted. Despite Cloudhawk’s famous appetite he never grew too hungry. The outpost’s food left much to be desired in flavor, but it certainly had enough nutrition to keep them going.
Claudia Lunae and the other two trainees huddled in their corners, cradling growling stomachs.
They were demonhunters, and demonhunters got hungry faster than normal people. They were stronger, and so their bodies had to expend more energy to keep them going. Typically they offset that by eating a lot of nutrient-rich foods, but after two days they were half-starved.
Claudia was just managing to fight back her nausea. She stretched out a hand to give it another shot when the door to their cabin burst open. A group of soldiers filed in and snatched up the bowls, whether or not the trainees were done with them.
Claudia managed to keep down her first bowl of food. She’d thrown up twice but she was so hungry.
She ate up every bite of the filthy stuff. This time she didn’t vomit.
They’d gotten used to the food, but they hadn’t even really started their training yet. This was just a taste of what hell was like. To Cloudhawk the days of scanty food and scarce water was like being back in the wastelands. It was much worse for the spoiled elysians.
But it was endurable. Claudia and the others weren’t handling it as well as Cloudhawk but he was able to tolerate much more than the typical person.
Five days and nights in total darkness, starved and tormented, had put them on edge. The worst was that they weren’t allowed to move around, much less speak. It was a cruel sort of punishment.
They were told over and over by trainers and family to respect all the rules, but after five days their will began to break. Impatience got the better of them and they figured a few quiet words would cause no harm.
A little conversation will help make this whole thing easier. It wasn’t a big deal, what harm would one sentence do?
“Let’s talk.” The one to break the silence was one of the other Skycloud trainees. After so long without using it his voice had become hoarse. “I saw a bunch of cabins. They can’t be listening at all hours. If we just sit here in silence I’m going to go mad.”
“Yeah, hey what’s your name? I’m the third son of Southsky City’s general, my name’s…”
The two young noble children carried on their quiet conversation. Claudia also found the silence almost unbearable, but as she sat there and looked at Cloudhawk sitting silent and cross-legged across the room she also kept her mouth shut. She wasn’t going to get shown up by that bastard.
If this idiot can hold out then why can’t I? If he doesn’t open his mouth then neither will I!
She hated Cloudhawk with a passion and saw him as her nemesis. She couldn’t abide looking weaker than him. Meanwhile the other two were looking at Cloudhawk and Claudia. A pretty girl like her attracted attention anywhere she went, especially considering her family. They figured it would be a good idea to get close to her.
But she wasn’t talking. It would be improper to just boldly approach.
“Hey, why don’t you speak?”
“It’s alright. It’s night, if we keep it down they won’t be able to hear us.”
They tried to get Cloudhawk’s attention but after several attempts Cloudhawk acted like he didn’t hear. This upset the two trainees. The small cabin was only maybe twenty meters across, so they stood up and walked over to him.
Cloudhawk was already disliked since he was clearly so different from them.
It had to be said that while the others were starving he gulped down that awful food without a problem. He made them look like fools while they vomited their guts out and he just scarfed it all down. How could they not be upset?
“We’re talking to you. You dead?”
They tried several times to get his attention but no matter what they did Cloudhawk never moved. They weren't people to him, they were a pair of dancing monkeys chirping away. He didn’t want to waste any time with monkeys.
“Shit, you don’t care about showing disrespect eh? I’m the son of Southsky’s general!”
One of the youths shot to his feet, upset by Cloudhawk’s perceived insult. He kicked Cloudhawk over.
Cloudhawk picked himself up, expressionless. He didn’t say anything, didn’t strike back, because he knew he wouldn’t like the consequences of acting out. His indifferent attitude only made the two young men angrier.
It was a performance, put on for Claudia Lunae. After days in here embarrassing themselves they wanted to take back some pride. It all rose up in them like a tide. One of them, seeing red, threw a fist at Cloudhawk’s face.
Claudia gloated with a cold sneer. These two were from small-town influential families. They were young, with exaggerated opinions of themselves. They were all put together for a reason and the actions they took now were going to cost everyone involved. This was the best outcome for her.
Cloudhawk would definitely be wrapped up in it!
Claudiae knew that Cloudhawk was as cunning as he was impulsive. If he was able to keep himself in check it would be a surprise. All he had to do was lift a hand and the punishment he earned would be music to her ears. If he didn’t she would get to watch as these two morons beat the hell out of him. What could make her happier? After almost a week of darkness and silence, finally some entertainment!
But just as the guy’s fist arrived it didn’t hit Cloudhawk as expected. Instead he swung right through his head like he was flailing at air.
“What the hell?”
The other one gave it a try. The result was the same, with his fists passing right through Cloudhawk’s head.
Was this guy some sort of apparition? He had to have some sort of special relic that was confusing them!
The two young men stared wide eyed and Cloudhawk just smirked back. Their blood ran cold. “You…. You got guts. I’ll remember.”
Neither dared come at him again. It didn’t matter where he came from, if Cloudhawk could use a power like that he was no ordinary guy. He wasn’t someone they should screw around with, it would only end up bad for them.
Cloudhawk shut his eyes and sat back down without saying a word.
The two morons thought they were clever, but Oddball had been keeping an eye out. Every day there were at least three soldiers standing watch over their cabin, working in shifts. Their strange auras were tough even for Cloudhawk to recognize, so he wasn’t sure when they were nearby. But he knew the nonsense these guys had been up to was being recorded. They knew.
The sixth day.
The seventh day.
As time passed one could imagine it wasn’t just a handful who broke the rules.
Bang bang bang!
On the eighth day a gong rang, loud enough to wake everyone. Trainees filed out of their cabins to find several large men standing in the center of the camp near an iron pylon. A scarred man with an eyepatch and black clothing stood in front.
He faced a group of seventy or eighty young, fresh-faced recruits all around their early twenties with bags on their backs. After seven days and nights they all looked famished, barely able to stand.
As Cloudhawk walked out into the crowd he felt hostile eyes on him. His brows drew together. He knew Claudia hated him, but after her father’s pleas her violent tendencies had all but gone.
This murderous feeling… it was hard to understand.
Cloudhawk was sure there was no one he knew here besides Claudia. Why would anyone want to wish him harm? He started to look around for the owner of those eyes when…
Clank, clank, clank. The sound of heavy footsteps.
Five veteran soldiers surrounding a single man walked by.
He was easily two meters tall and brawny as a lion. His reddish black face was marked with half a dozen scars that reached from one side of his face to the other. They had clearly been stitched. It made his already unpleasant face harder to look at, like they’d used different kinds of skin to past it all back together.
He walked in an imposing manner and every step made the ground shake. He looked like nothing could stop him – he’d walk right through a mountain and cleave it in half if it dared stand in his way.
“Hello, everyone. I am one of your training instructors. The men with me are my assistants. And that’s it for my self-introduction.” The scarred instructor spoke very fast – quick as lightning and sharp as a blade. His voice boomed through the camp. “If I pick you out, step forward.”
He started to point at people, ultimately selecting twenty-some from the crowd. Among them were two from Cloudhawk’s cabin. As they stood before the instructor’s cold glare they didn’t dare move a muscle.
The fear about all twenty of them was almost palpable.
All of them had something in common; they’d all somehow broken the rules while locked in the cabins. Up till now they thought they’d been lucky. But at last they realized their folly – they were being watched twenty-four hours a day.
“Do you know why I singled you lot out? Breaking the rules in and of itself isn’t bad – we like rule-breakers in Hell Valley! But if you’re going to break the rules, you either need to have the power to change the rules, or be smart enough not to get caught! That’s where you failed.” The instructor grinned and his scarred face twisted up like a devil’s. It made their skin crawl. “So now you’ve got to pay the price, that’s all there is to it. If any of you disagree then step up! I’ll give you a shot.”
The twenty offenders looked around at one another. None of them dared raise their voice.
As strong as his assistants were, no one wanted to test the instructor’s strength. They’d been caught and he picked them out without fail. There was nothing to be gained by arguing, that would only make their punishment worse.
“Alright. Well if you aren’t willing to take your shot, then don’t blame me for what’s coming.”
The scarred instructor’s sinister grin made everyone shiver.
1. Often in Chinese traditional medicine the root bark is the most efficacious. Keep that in mind if you’re ever stuck alone in the wilderness and are forced to stuff strange plant matter into your face.
Karma is a bitch, boys...